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BWW Review: SPRING AWAKENING at Broccoli Hall, Inc.

Can "celebrity" and "diversity" carry a show?

BWW Review: SPRING AWAKENING at Broccoli Hall, Inc.

In 1891, years before Sigmund Freud would revolutionize the way the human mind is perceived and the significance of symbolism, childhood, and sexuality on a person's psyche, German playwright Frank Wedekind challenged the taboos around the sexual tensions, confusions, and awakenings of young people with a play that would challenge censorship in the theatre, academia, and pop culture for nearly a century. Though delayed in its premiere and international popularity, Wedekind's play sparked two silent film adaptations and won high praise for its radicalism and foreword thinking from Emma Goldman. In adapting Spring Awakening for the commercial stage in 2006, despite a pop-infused score and iconic choreography by Bill T Jones, Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik fumbled some of the beauty, raw energy, and titillating bluntness of the source material. Just as in the case of adapting Hairspray, Little Shop of Horrors, or La Cage Aux Folles for the commercial musical theatre stage, Spring Awakening as a musical only really broke any rules in that its cast alluded to four letter words in their televised Tony Awards performance, and only really pushed the envelope as being perhaps the first parental-advisory-stamped CD MLMs of a certain age tried to acquire (legally or otherwise- welcoming all kinds of spyware onto the desktop computers in our mothers' offices.) That said, the production's 2015 revival by Deaf West Theatre broke ground in the way it reinterpreted the narrative and the form to incorporate a largely Deaf and disabled ensemble and a mix of spoken English and American Sign Language.

Broccoli Hall, Inc., from all perspectives a vehicle for and passion project of director/ producer/ designer/ actor Jake Egan and a handful of high school students, sets forth a major promise:

"We'd like to introduce you to a new Spring Awakening- a production re-conceived and fully comprised, from the very top of leadership to the designers, to the choreographers, to technical managers and through the cast, of BIPOC, LGBTQ++, survivors and loud advocates of Emotional and Mental Health, as well as those living with the horrors of physical and sexual assault/harassment."

The show's website regurgitates a word salad about "courage", "boldness", "race", "sexuality", and "re-conception" which falls flat as soon as the production begins. Quickly, as we adjust to the now standard format of individual actors addressing each other through cyberspace and the deadly pacing (usually attributed to technical glitches, but I'm unsure what the reasoning is for this entirely prerecorded performance) of Zoom performances, we see this is an amateur replica of the 2006 Broadway production. A24 dual-tone lighting falls upon imitations of reclaimed wood, rustic-hued chairs, and a tangle of faux flowers direct from Jo-Anne's fabrics. Susan Hilferty's carefully curated aesthetic originally created for the Atlantic Theatre Company fuses period costumes with hair and shoes that run the gamut from modern to punk. This eclectic amalgamation divined directly from the libretto was reflected in Christine Jones' neon-lit scenery. In 2006, these choices for this piece may have been courageous or even bold. Homaging them over a decade later feels unimaginatively derivative and the inclusion of Black Power insignia on the (non-Black) schoolboys' uniforms as the only overt variation from Hilferty's original concept is a distracting anachronism that seems just ham-fisted and gratuitous enough to have been advised by president-elect Joe Biden himself. Identities of the artists who made these choices for this production seem irrelevant to their overall impact, but I question if this team should tote its own diversity so proudly. To quote Season 3, Episode 17 of The Golden Girls:

BLANCHE:

A gay theater director, did you ever hear of such a thing?

DOROTHY:

That's absolutely shocking. The next thing you know, they'll have Black basketball players in the NBA.

The play was gay at the turn of the century. The Broadway production was directed by a gay, white man, mostly designed by white women, and choreographed by a gay, Black man who is one of the most prolific pioneers in the field of modern dance. The revival included Ali Stroker in the first Broadway performance by a wheelchair user. Identity politics may have done all they can do for Spring Awakening, and, short of an all-trans, Nigerian, lesbian-polyamory revival, theatres may have to look for another byline to justify the piece's continued relevance. As is, the implication that this predominantly white and white passing production with only white or lightskin leads and creative team is radically inclusive feels insulting, overreaching, and desperate.

Just as in the bios on the show's website, the production itself has a dangerous infatuation with celebrity. Splitting the role of Adult Woman are Broadway stars Beth Malone and Alice Ripley. It feels the intention of melting those several characters into one role was to serve like the blaring trombone in the Peanuts TV specials- to bring an anonymity to the grown characters and keep audiences focused on the complexities of the lives of the young people. As the youngsters indistinctly wander about masked on a stage and amorphously gyrate and flail to the music, intercut interactions with these two Broadway actors seem cartoonishly overblown and posit the adults as caricatures out of a James Bond film. Additional stars of national tours and Broadway understudies intercut their self-tapes erroneously, but when I consider the ticket price of $38, I recall that on Cameo, for just $2 more I could have an understudy Phantom of the Opera read an original poem as a birthday gift, and the attempt at star power doesn't quite carry. Rather than spread the budget around to his various contacts, Egan should've just landed Kevin from The Office as Moritz and done this star-studded fan homage right. That would be a re-conception worth writing about. Every detail of this production- from the gimmicky toting of collaborators with marginalized identities to the saturation of reminders that there are New Yorkers involved- seems so desperate for attention that little attention seems to have been paid to the quality of the work itself. The staging is scant for those performing in person, there are deathly pauses in the editing, and an undiscerning eye would ask if Ripley was paid by the minute judging by the inexplicable pauses she takes.

Let me be clear: I do not believe Spring Awakening needs to be retired. The musical is rife with imagery that could be embraced via digital performance; source material that delves into surrealism, a score that is asking for 90s-nostalgic music videos, and intimate subject matter that cannot be literally presented on a stage. Rather than explore these elements, this team sought to replicate earlier productions. There are plenty of theatres who frame mission statements around recreating productions as they first appeared on Broadway. Nothing wrong with that. But should those theatres lure audiences in with promises of a radically new piece?

Believe it or not, I actually believe we should bring back the summer stock mentality of shoving slightly famous people on stage and making them draw a crowd. Every schtick has its place. I don't think this was the piece- or the role(s) for it. An eagerness to work with Ripley or Malone is not inherently cheap, but again we must address the disingenuous way this production is advertised. As is, it seems Egan has a major success on his hands, in that he can now add "Spring Awakening (with Alice Ripley)" to his resume (and then hope no potential collaborator thinks or researches any deeper into it) but otherwise, the production falls short of every goal it purports. Rather than accrue names of associate this-and-thats, hit upon every union known to man, or purport nonexistent diversity, Broccoli Hall, Inc. and Egan need to reexamine their priorities for their next endeavor. After all, if the priorities they purport are at all true, there are plenty of unemployed artists who would take a commission from the funds otherwise forked over to Music Theatre International. Do a big Broadway musical if you want, but don't tell me you are doing it to save the world.

The show can be streamed through January 10 here.


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